In the next blog in our A Fair Start series, International Montessori Institute Director Nathan Archer explores equity in the early years education system.

Since the initiation of universal free part time early education in England in the late 1990s there has been significant expansion in the funded entitlements on offer. Most recently, the introduction of an increase to 30 hours of free ‘childcare’ for the children of working parents in 2017 was a major advancement in provision. Yet as a recent report acknowledges:  

‘Despite this remarkable progress in expanding educational opportunity over the past decades, access to high quality education remains incomplete and inequitable.’ (International Commission on the Futures of Education, 2021, p.21) 

The principle of equity is at the heart of Sutton’s Trust’s ‘A Fair Start’ campaign and it builds on recommendations from numerous reports. In the ‘Getting the Balance Right’ report, Archer and Merrick (2020, p.14) note:   

‘There are arguments that making the 30 hours universal (as Scotland has done), or ensuring that the most disadvantaged families can access it to support parents to return to work, will reduce the risk of an increase in the disadvantage gap. At present, a child who has been eligible for the 2-year-old funding may not be eligible for the 30 hours alongside more advantaged peers, running the risk that the previous steps towards closing the gap are undermined.’

In 2019, a House of Commons Education Committee report on tackling disadvantage in the early years concluded that limiting the 30 hour offer to children whose parents met the earnings threshold was likely to entrench inequality rather than to close the attainment gap.

The committee recommended the government ‘review its 30 hours childcare policy to address the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children’. This is underscored in recent research which found that 70% of parents eligible for the funded places for their children are in the top half of the earnings distribution.  

Equity of access and universality  

Universal access to early childhood education and care has, to some extent, been a feature of the English system. However, over recent years additional policies have been ‘layered’ on top of these original universal entitlements by successive governments. In attempts to address early intervention and parental employment we now have a patchwork of policies in which access to funded early education is determined by complex criteria which change depending on the child’s age and a family’s income. The principles of universality and equity has been lost in the process.  

Equity of access to early childhood education is highlighted as a priority in multiple international research reports (The Front Project, Waterford, CCEPRA, NAEYC, UNESCO).

Indeed, the OECD advocate for a number of actions on equity of access:  

  • A strong public policy commitment to early childhood education – backed by a bold vision, strong plans and adequate funds – is important to guarantee access on an equal basis 
  • Planning for universal access is the most equitable way to expand early childhood education but it is important to ensure that disadvantaged children are first to benefit 
  • Clear, unambiguous legislation on the right to free or publicly subsidised early childhood education is one way to encourage equitable access 
  • When feasible, a guarantee of unconditional free pre-primary education is increasingly shown in research and practice to be one of the most effective ways to ensure equitable access 
  • Adequate public spending on pre-primary education is a condition for reducing cost barriers for families 

Removing barriers and creating more access to early learning options can make all the difference in a child’s education. Therefore, equity is vital to enabling a fair start for early learners, and only when all stakeholders embrace equity as a core value – and use it to shape policy and practice – will we see meaningful progress toward this goal.  

Equity and Sustainability  

However, if universality of early years provision is to be expanded within the current model of a mixed market, this must factor in the financial viability of provision, whether public, private or voluntary. The prospect of any expansion of funded hours at the current underfunded rates would invariably exacerbate the problems of settings’ sustainability and intensify the challenges to workforce recruitment and retention. It is imperative for this infrastructure that any increase in hours is matched by appropriate funding.  

Towards a comprehensive universal system 

The report, The role of early childhood education and care in shaping life chances (Archer and Oppenheim, 2021) calls for a whole-system review of early childhood education and care, with a focus on funding. Such a strategy would be designed to deliver quality of provision for children, affordability for parents, improved training and pay for the workforce, and one which makes a particular difference to the lives of disadvantaged children.   

Imagine a system in which equity of access is built in by the universality of entitlements.

This revised system would necessarily involve uncoupling the current 30 hours policy from parental employment conditions. It involves de-centering ‘cost to parents’ as the policy driver in favour of re-centering the child’s right to high quality early education. It involves asking, as a starting point – does the system offer equitable access to all children?  

The A Fair Start campaign, to ensure equity of access for all 3 and 4 year old children to 30 hours early education per week, is an important step towards a rebuilt system – one in which universal entitlement of early childhood education for all young children under the age of five can be a reality.

The opinions of guest authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sutton Trust.

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